Remember Soissons?

clay county histories

Markus Krueger | Program Director  HCSCC

Two Marines from Barnesville – John McGrath and Frank Stahl – met in a trench on the morning of July 19, 1918. John’s older sister was in Frank’s class and both grew up going to Assumption Catholic Church. Frank had been a cook on a railroad dining car and John was studying to be a lawyer at Campion College in Wisconsin. The two talked about how John Tuski, another Barnesville Marine, had been killed in action at Belleau Wood the previous month. John and Frank wished each other luck, parted ways, and went Over the Top into No Man’s Land when the whistle blew.

We know this happened because it was in Frank’s final letter home, written with the aid of a nurse a few days before he died of wounds he received in that attack. John McGrath disappeared that day. He was never found.

Two days later, not far away, Dan Christensen went Over the Top. Dan was an educated farmer from Oakport Township. He had attended Aakers Business College, Concordia College and North Dakota Agricultural College (what we now call NDSU). He played both baseball and basketball in school. He was a great hunter, musically talented, and loved to travel. His brother described him as funny and optimistic.

Dan went overseas in the summer of 1917 with the 1st Division – the first American division to arrive in France. He was among the American soldiers who stopped the mighty German offensive at Chateau Theirry the previous month, and he lost part of his thumb doing it. Having stopped the Germans, Dan Christensen, John McGrath, Frank Stahl, and the rest of the Allied soldiers took part in a grand counter-attack.

Dan’s regiment fought hard against horribly accurate German artillery and machine gun fire on July 21. They took their objective but at the end of the day, Dan Christensen just wasn’t there. He was never found.

Memorial Day is about remembering, but few of us remember the Battle of Soissons where Dan Christensen, John McGrath, Frank Stahl, and thousands of Americans were killed 103 years ago. World War I took the lives of 64 of Clay County soldiers. About half died in combat and the other half of disease during the simultaneous Spanish Influenza pandemic. World War II, our county’s deadliest war, took roughly 70 of our young men. 

When the war ended, we gathered our dead from the scattered, hastily-dug graves dotting the battlefields and hospitals the Western Front. Of the 75,000 American soldiers buried in Europe during the war, 45 were from Clay County. Of those 45, the remains of 28 came home. Frank Stahl and John Tuski are both buried in Barnesville. Fifteen Clay County soldiers were reinterred under white crosses in one of the nine American cemeteries established in Europe after the war. The names of Dan Christensen and John McGrath are among the 1060 names of missing men carved in the walls of the chapel at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery about seven miles northwest of Chateau Theirry. 

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